The Biden administration recently submitted and formally launched its annual report to Congress on U.S. efforts to anticipate, prevent, and respond to atrocities, as required by the landmark Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act (the Elie Wiesel Act). While the report asserts that atrocity prevention is a “core national security interest,” and the United States has taken steps to prevent and reduce atrocities, the United States must take bolder action to elevate and integrate violent conflict and atrocity prevention as strategic priorities if it is to realize the promise of “never again.”
Today, violent conflict around the world is at an all-time high, affecting over two billion people. Twenty countries experiencing or at-risk of experiencing atrocities, from Ukraine to Myanmar. And in Sudan, twenty years after the genocide that galvanized the world, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and large-scale ethnic-based violence potentially amounting to genocide are occurring in Darfur once again.
The Biden administration, however, has not dedicated the atrocity prevention agenda sufficient attention or much needed financial support. The most recent National Security Strategy (2022) only mentions atrocities once, and the Fiscal Year 2024 Presidential Budget Request omitted any provisions for atrocity prevention funding. While Congress equipped the executive branch with innovative tools through a prevention-oriented canon of law – embodied in the Elie Wiesel Act, the Global Fragility Act (GFA), and the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Act – a lack of prioritization, political buy-in, and resources from the highest levels continues to hamper its implementation, undermining the administration’s stated commitment to atrocity prevention as a “core national security interest.”
Given the grave atrocities occurring in real-time in multiple contexts, atrocity prevention can no longer remain siloed, under-resourced, and a “second-order” issue in U.S. foreign policy and assistance. While upstream prevention efforts are vital, the current moment provides an opportunity for the Biden administration to adopt an integrated, multisectoral approach to stopping atrocities actively underway and promoting post-hoc justice and accountability. Through prioritizing atrocity prevention at the highest levels of government, more robustly resourcing interagency teams working to implement atrocity prevention, and consistently leveraging all tools available to the government to respond to ongoing atrocities, the United States can more effectively anticipate, prevent, and halt atrocities worldwide.
Why Prioritize Atrocity Prevention Now?
Atrocity crimes, as recognized by international law, include genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Atrocity prevention is an ongoing process that can occur on a continuum before, during, and after the commission of atrocity crimes to address the cause and effects of violence and conflict, including by building societal resilience to risk factors for atrocity crimes. Important resilience-building interventions include strengthening social cohesion, State institutions, and the rule of law; eliminating hate speech; and supporting civil society, peace processes, monitoring and documentation, and transitional justice. These types of efforts promote upstream prevention in fragile and at-risk States to avert the outbreak of atrocities in the first place, as well as minimize their costs politically, financially, and – most significantly – in terms of human lives and suffering.
However, inaction at any point along the continuum can perpetuate cycles of violence. Thus, investment in upstream prevention is equally as integral as addressing ongoing atrocities and promoting justice and accountability, particularly by providing sustained and flexible resources to and strengthening the capacity of local civil society stakeholders and peacebuilders, to ultimately help prevent further mass atrocities. Such interventions in the immediate wake of significant electoral violence and crimes against humanity in Kenya in 2007, for example, led the response to be deemed the first example of the “Responsibility to Protect” in action and stemmed the tide of potential mass atrocities. A well-resourced multisectoral, multipronged “response” to atrocities that simultaneously pulls multiple levers of influence can – in and of itself – prevent the commission of more crimes once they are underway. To achieve the promise of “never again,” governments must recognize that it is “never too late” to take action to mitigate and stop further violence.
The current situation in Sudan, in particular, is ripe for such a response. Although atrocity crimes are already occurring, additional atrocities can be prevented through the deployment of key tools, resources, and coordination. Notably, the State Department quickly created a Conflict Observatory soon after the conflict began and is actively supporting monitoring efforts. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is also providing hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance to Sudan and its neighbors. President Biden and the Treasury Department have issued a few sanctions, including against leaders of the Rapid Support Forces.
Unfortunately, sustained attention to and the integration of atrocities prevention and responses that can promote the prevention of further atrocities remains elusive in the overall U.S. policy approach to the crisis. To date, the administration has failed to make a formal atrocity determination, appoint a Special or Presidential Envoy, support an arms embargo, sanction perpetrators from all sides of the conflict, outline urgent civilian protection plans, identify a roadmap toward a sustainable cessation of hostilities or an inclusive peace process, or adequately resource investigations to support justice and accountability down the road – all urgent recommendations from the U.S. Prevention and Protection Working Group, U.K. Civil Society Atrocity Prevention Working Group, and other leading civil society organizations. Pulling even a few of these levers could have immediate impact on the ground as a means of response to prevent further suffering.
Importantly, preventing violent conflict and atrocities is not just a moral imperative – it is good foreign policy, too. Atrocity prevention can counter the influence of malign actors, such as Russia and China, by making their leaders international pariahs, disrupting their supply chains, and rebuffing their efforts to advance destabilizing economic and other geopolitical interests in fragile States. More broadly, mass atrocities threaten global peace and security through increased violence and instability, forced displacement, and economic devastation, all while violating international law. Preventing and urgently halting ongoing atrocities thus decreases the need for costly security and humanitarian interventions and can promote democracy, human rights, economic growth, and partnership between the United States and fragile or at-risk States.
Indeed, in 2022, violence had a devastating economic impact, costing $17.5 trillion – or 12.9 percent of the global gross domestic product – a figure likely to rise with the collapse of the Black Sea grain deal, the war in Sudan, and the instability created by the Niger coup. Peacebuilding initiatives – particularly those led by local stakeholders – are cost-effective at preventing the outbreak or recurrence of conflict and atrocities, negate the need for expensive crisis responses, and promote U.S. national security interests. Yet, in FY22, Congress appropriated one-half of one percent of the defense budget on peacebuilding and prevention.
The Biden administration asserted early and often that human rights would be at the center of its foreign policy. Yet, inconsistency continues to define U.S. approaches to addressing country-specific atrocities. For instance, in 2022, Secretary of State Antony Blinken proclaimed that the Burmese military committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya, yet little action followed to address the structural drivers of violence or ensure accountability for survivors. Despite reports of ongoing gross human rights violations in Ethiopia by all parties, the Biden administration lifted a legal restriction that prohibited the Ethiopian government from qualifying for U.S. and international loans and assistance in June. This action undermined the atrocity determination issued by Blinken just three months earlier. By pivoting away from its discordant approach to democracy and human rights and toward a foreign policy that elevates and integrates atrocity prevention, the administration can restore credibility and coherence to U.S. engagement abroad, counter the influence of nefarious actors, promote stability, and save lives.
The Prevention-Oriented Canon of Law: Tools to Prevent Atrocities
Notably, Congress has passed several laws in recent years to bolster the U.S.’s ability to prevent and respond to atrocities, which include the Elie Wiesel Act, the GFA, and the WPS Act. These laws and the whole-of-government strategies they mandated outline specific goals, objectives, and activities; guide interagency coordination to center and address drivers of violence, conflict, and atrocities; and promote peacebuilding as a core priority in U.S. foreign policy. The Biden administration has the legal and policy means needed to revitalize U.S. leadership abroad and truly elevate human rights and democracy around the world.
For example, the Elie Wiesel Act and the U.S. Strategy to Anticipate, Prevent, and Respond to Atrocities (2022) required the adoption of a multisectoral and interagency approach and identified critical tools, staff and partner training, and personnel to address the increasing number of atrocity situations worldwide and improve the U.S. government’s ability to respond to them. These tools include foreign assistance, security cooperation, sanctions, and partnerships, among others.
Meanwhile, the GFA provides the State Department, USAID, and the Department of Defense with flexible funding and a multi-year mandate to implement integrated peacebuilding and conflict prevention strategic plans in Mozambique, Papua New Guinea, Haiti, Libya, and Coastal West Africa. The GFA’s required U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability (2020) elucidates how U.S. diplomatic, development, and defense resources can address fragility and drivers of violence in these contexts, the game-changing lessons of which can guide reform to foreign policy decision-making and be broadly scaled through U.S. foreign assistance as they are gleaned over the next 10 years of implementation.
Finally, the WPS Act and the U.S. Strategy on WPS (2019) – the latter of which the administration is currently updating – seek to empower women by increasing their meaningful participation in efforts to prevent violence, build peace, and combat gender-based violence and atrocities. Women’s agency is required in these processes given how conflict and atrocities disproportionately impact the lives and livelihoods of women.
Notably, the Biden administration has taken steps to integrate this prevention-oriented canon of law. For instance, the U.S. Strategy to Anticipate, Prevent, and Respond to Atrocities released last year specifically references the GFA and WPS Act and their mandated strategies as related policy tools to prevent and address atrocities. Building on the WPS Act and the Elie Wiesel Act, the White House released a Memorandum on Promoting Accountability for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) in November 2022, outlining plans to deter CRSV and gender-based atrocities, fight impunity, sanction perpetrators, and provide services to survivors. The 2023 report to Congress required by the Elie Wiesel Act, for the first time, dedicates an entire section to “Addressing Gender-Based Violence as an Atrocity Risk.” Furthermore, the country and regional implementation plans for the GFA include a focus on advancing the WPS Agenda and early warning efforts to address the drivers of violence and atrocities.
Yet, while the interagency teams working to implement the Elie Wiesel Act, GFA, and WPS Act and the principals that lead them consult regularly and are actively striving to coordinate all three of these prevention-oriented approaches, they remain understaffed, under-resourced, and need higher level buy-in from the highest echelons of the administration, including the President and the Secretary of State. Bolstering leadership and committing to the prioritization of prevention as a foreign policy imperative — as envisioned in these three laws—coupled with more robust financial support, personnel, and mainstreamed training could more effectively avert and reduce atrocities both before and after the breakout.
The Way Forward to Prevent Mistakes of the Past and More Atrocities in the Future
Despite advances in U.S. legal and policy frameworks and the diligent work and laudable efforts of interagency teams such as the Atrocity Prevention Task Force, the GFA Secretariat, and WPS coordinating bodies, the Biden administration must prioritize atrocity and conflict prevention. A lack of demonstrated commitment at the most senior levels of government and an over-emphasis on crisis response will continue to hamstring even baseline prevention efforts. To improve the government’s ability to prevent, reduce, and end atrocity crimes and improve the overall effectiveness of U.S. policy approaches toward countries experiencing or at-risk of violent conflict and atrocities, the administration should undertake the following actions.
Prioritize Atrocity Prevention at the Highest Levels of Government
Administration leaders should elevate the need for coordinated support to prevent and mitigate atrocities through speeches at international fora, press releases, statements, Congressional testimony, and other public-facing platforms to signal the administration’s commitment to deterring future atrocities and holding perpetrators to account. Recent videos, statements, and posts about Darfur from high-ranking officials are a good start, but have only begun to emerge with a modicum of coordination five months after the conflict began. Public visibility from senior leaders is imperative to project U.S. engagement and is a small but essential tool to influence the behavior of nefarious actors and galvanize collective action by the international community.
Ensure a Cohesive Approach that Prioritizes Prevention Over Reaction
The interagency atrocity prevention approach must harness all available tools, mechanisms, resources, and expertise. While the administration “prioritizes early identification” and can make formal atrocities determinations, such determinations must be issued swiftly upon the outset of violence (as was the case in Ukraine) and buttressed with multisectoral resources and interventions (as is lacking, but required, in Sudan). Indeed, the impact of atrocity determinations would be enhanced if they were announced with a package of practical and policy tools the U.S. plans to utilize across agencies to address ongoing atrocities and prevent future ones in a given context.
Even after violence breaks out, moreover, the NSC should regularly coordinate atrocities prevention efforts with interagency bodies implementing the Elie Wiesel Act, GFA, and WPS Act, as well as regional and functional offices and other government entities tasked with diplomatic, security, and humanitarian crisis response. NSC leaders are uniquely situated to ensure considerations of atrocities prevention are integrated as a central means of response into the overall policy toward a particular country or crisis at-risk of or experiencing atrocities in real-time. Doing so can eliminate bureaucratic silos, limit duplication of efforts, and support smart foreign policy decision-making that uses a multisectoral approach to avert, reduce, and stop egregious human rights abuses and mass violence.
Finally, prevention must be a first-order priority and should not be subverted in service of other policy tools, such as humanitarian assistance, during a crisis response, as has been the case recently in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Rather, the United States must concurrently address the compounding political, humanitarian, prevention, and civilian protection challenges that arise during conflict. The NSC and the Atrocity Prevention Task Force should leverage ongoing efforts to address the crises in Ukraine, Sudan, and elsewhere to create a standardized blueprint for an integrated and multisectoral approach to addressing all facets of a conflict – with an emphasis on preventing, reducing, and stopping mass atrocities and violence – that can be tailored and contextualized for use anywhere in the world.
Use Targeted Sanctions and Other Economic Measures
The administration should consistently and expeditiously impose sanctions and other coercive economic tools on those ordering, committing, and supporting atrocities in all contexts globally as part of an overarching atrocities prevention strategy, with an emphasis on gender-based atrocities in accordance with the Presidential Memorandum on CRSV. The Treasury Department has issued thousands of atrocities-related sanctions in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, but only a handful related to the conflict in Sudan. Sanctions should also be imposed on individuals and entities providing the means to carry out atrocities, and arms embargos and trade restrictions should be placed on countries at-risk of or experiencing atrocities to ensure accountability against the States, businesses, and individuals fueling violence. However, any sanctions must strive to mitigate civilian harm and include exemptions or concurrent licenses to facilitate the unimpeded delivery of peacebuilding, human rights, humanitarian, and other development assistance.
Invest in Tailored Initiatives to Address the Root Causes of Violence
Although there are commonalities among the drivers of atrocities, prevention and mitigation interventions must account for context-specific and dynamic political, social, cultural, religious, and security conditions and local needs. All assessments, assistance, and programs must center vulnerable communities and accordingly tailor protection approaches. They must also be conflict- and gender-sensitive to address the short- and long-term impacts of CRSV and gender-based atrocities, including physical harm, psychological trauma, and stigmatization, and support the provision of psychosocial support and other services to survivors. Specifically, contextualized atrocity prevention and reduction efforts should support:
- Peacebuilding, humanitarian, human rights, and other development assistance to civil society that advances upstream prevention and atrocities mitigation, promotes social cohesion, and builds resilience against the commission of atrocities;
- Flexible operational support and capacity-strengthening for local civil society organizations and networks, particularly those that are led by and serve women, youth, faith actors, and other marginalized communities, and many of whom are providing life-saving assistance under life-threatening conditions;
- Risk assessments, early warning, documentation, monitoring, and evidence preservation;
- Peace processes, transitional justice mechanisms, and reconciliation efforts; and
- Investigations and prosecutions by international, regional, and domestic justice and accountability mechanisms.
Engage the Private Sector Through Corporate Social Responsibility Efforts
Engagement with the private sector remains an underutilized tool of atrocities prevention and response. The U.S. government has made significant progress in halting the imports of products manufactured in places where atrocities are underway, such as by Uyghur forced labor in China. Nonetheless, the administration should go a step further to work with companies to avoid or halt investments or operations in regions and countries where regimes are perpetrating atrocities. Beyond fines, sanctions, and other punitive measures to deter and punish private sector actors for engaging with or supplying arms to perpetrators of atrocities, opportunities for partnership abound to promote businesses’ constructive role in places at-risk of or experiencing atrocities. Given that stability creates new markets, enhances productivity, and increases returns, the administration should collaborate with the private sector to support peacebuilding and prevention initiatives within civil society. Through private-public partnerships and direct grants and other financial and in-kind assistance, the U.S. can encourage private business to practice good social corporate responsibility and help States build resilience, as well as support human rights defenders, peacebuilders, and other international and local civil society organizations and actors working to prevent and respond to atrocities and protect at-risk civilians.
Emphasize Regular Consultations with Civil Society
Laudably, the interagency Atrocity Prevention Task Force meets regularly with the Prevention and Protection Working Group, a coalition of over 250 civil society organizations and experts working to prevent genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, concerning specific conflicts and contexts, as well as legal and policy developments, reporting requirements, and advances in the scholarship, programming, and best practices in atrocities prevention and response. This critical relationship should continue to be strengthened and serve as a model for other interagency policy priorities. At the same time, U.S. government officials should continue to refine and regularize efforts to consult and coordinate with local civil society stakeholders, particularly women, youth, faith actors, and other marginalized communities, to ensure U.S. policy decisions reflect local needs. Engagement with U.S.-based and local civil society actors and consistent, meaningful feedback loops can provide the administration with additional information, expertise, and much-needed access to local stakeholders and survivors.
Strengthen Strategic Communication Channels with Congress
To ensure Congress can play a constructive role in preventing and addressing atrocities, the Biden administration must develop and refine formal and informal communication channels with relevant Congressional committees and staff to discuss prevention and mitigation efforts, as well as opportunities for and challenges to successful policy approaches and interventions. Atrocity prevention and mitigation has long been a bipartisan issue capable of bringing disparate members of Congress together with common cause. Regular engagement will build trust between stakeholders, ensure safe spaces to assess geopolitical and policy obstacles, increase support for funding, and create latitude to test, learn from, and scale varied approaches.
Furthermore, the administration must submit robust requests for peacebuilding and atrocity prevention accounts to meet today’s challenges, address drivers of violence, and ensure timely, coordinated, holistic, and context-specific responses. In FY23, the administration sought $2.5 million for atrocity prevention; in FY24, they requested $0. Given today’s compounding global crises and competing foreign and domestic priorities, the administration must make the case for the resources needed prevent and mitigate atrocities annually in the Presidential Budget Request and emphasize how such efforts are in service of U.S. national security interests.
It’s Never Too Late to Prioritize Prevention
Preventing mass atrocities before they break out and halting atrocity crimes once they occur is one of the greatest challenges of our times – but it is possible. To meet this challenge effectively, atrocity prevention must be prioritized at the highest levels of government and substantially resourced. Prevention decreases the need for costly security and humanitarian interventions and can promote democracy, human rights, economic growth, and partnership. The Biden administration must leverage the tools provided by existing laws and policy toolkits, integrate prevention considerations along the continuum of policymaking and crisis response, and regularly deploy coordinated, multisectoral, and contextualized approaches to address the compounding challenges of conflict and rising atrocities and violence in Sudan, Ukraine, Myanmar, and beyond. Sustained prioritization, resources, and high-level engagement on atrocity prevention can transform it from a second-order issue into a “core national security interest” and a ensure a coherent foreign policy that protects civilians, saves lives, and elevates U.S. leadership on the global stage.
Kelcey Negus (@kelceynegus) contributed to this piece. She is a Policy and Advocacy Assistant with the Alliance for Peacebuilding. She holds an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University’s School of International Service and a B.A. in Post-Conflict Reconciliation from Whittier College.